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Snow for Breakfast – Paintings and poetry about the first four seasons in Canada
This book is the result of me taking up painting again after many years. I used to draw and paint incessantly when I was at school, but I never studied Art because my teachers told me I had neither the skill nor the endurance to make it. I studied languages instead, but continued painting and drawing while at university.
Then I realized there was nothing I wanted to paint. Perhaps nothing resonated with me. I either churned out big, angry black canvases or tiny, neurotic boxes of memorabilia. I did not want to make a business of it and it no longer gave me pleasure. All I saw was my poor efforts compared to the brilliant work in a town full of famous artists. The same goes for my poetry. I once won a poetry competition, but if you read enough poetry for long enough, eventually, your own poems embarrass you.
But after we came to live in Canada, I felt compelled to record, and somehow interpret, the landscapes. Every day I sit at my window and look at the wall of trees behind our house, with its changing light, movement and colours. One of many lovely scenes, of which we never stop taking photos, I have yet to paint it – and I still have not painted a decent group of trees. But I keep trying. It’s something to work at, and hugely satisfying when occasionally I get a spot right, or find a fitting phrase to match. In any case, it makes me happy. And I don’t mind that both the paintings and the poems are amateur compared to – again! – the work of a city full of professional artists and authors.
This publication is a record of my first two years of painting, and I use it as part of my artist’s CV. It contains the following poems, of which some (marked with an *) have been included in other poetry collections.
- Winter Hymnal
- Snow for Breakfast
- Flash Photo
- Small Critters
- Duffey Lake*
- The Guardian of the Lake
- Horses Seen from a Car
- Waltz for Mount Victoria
- Salmon Run
- All of this
- Two for the Road
Here are some of my favourites from the collection.
The poem is in the form of “couplets”, with the rhyme scheme, AA, BB, CC, DD in two quatrains. I thought a simple, repetitive rhyme scheme would suit the idea of the forest in the snow being like a church with the sounds around you like a hymn being sung. The title is a reference to a song on the band Fleet Foxes’s eponymous 2008 album, called White Winter Hymnal. It really sticks in your head, being a “roundel”. (It also has a simple, repetitive rhyme scheme.) I only discovered the band in 2014, and walked around for weeks with that song in my head. Oops – there it is again! Damn!
Back then in church we mumbled
our way through hymns, stumbled
over words, got the rhythm wrong,
mutilated each old-fashioned song.
Here, in tree-vaulted naves
I feel music rise again, octaves
of something grand and memorable:
a song for winter, a snow-packed hymnal.
The first time I experienced a real, snowy winter in Canada, I was out one morning early and saw, to my amazement, that snow is not just white. The effect of light on the snow makes for the most amazing colours, and the sky takes on the oddest shades. That particular morning, everything looked kind of pale brown, like coffee with cream. Hence title of the poem.
Snow for Breakfast
The trees are russet whorls
Blending into milky white
Mocha foliage swirling,
Blending into the light
Ice edging the creamy froth, dawning:
The first cup of snow of the morning.
I was always upset when the snow would begin to melt round about February. I tried often to paint the scene with the last patches of yellowing snow on dead, yellowish grass along the dykes where we take walks. I never could get it right. In fact, I only have photos of these paintings in various stages, but not one finished. Most, I chucked away. So the painting with this poem is not of the scene I saw, but it has the right colours. However, I liked the fact that I got the “perfect”, “alternate rhyme scheme” and quatrain style right in the poem.
Of straw these ditches are lined,
these paths outlined in white.
Of dead grass the dykes defined,
palest yellow, like the light.
Through tan and sallow sedge,
the beaver dam’s runs slow.
In fallow ice at the water’s edge,
lies the promise of returning snow.
If you get out real early on a snowy morning, your footprints would be the first on the path, other than those many-toed little prints of animals going about their business. I used to try and see where they went. Sometimes, it looked like they were following me.
Tiny pairs of clawed paw-prints,
running along, each edge glistens
blue: a pristine snowy epitaph,
there, on the deserted path,
to their frantic morning searches
for food amongst the frozen birches.
Revelstoke, BC, gets very cold, which is fine if you go there to ski. One of our favourite things is walking along the river that runs around the town, like a necklace. It was tricky to paint the frozen river since it was a sort of blue-grey – really, you could have said the colours had leached out of the scene. The river, despite being so cold, is very beautiful and adds glamour to the town, which is just a normal, working town on a railway line. Another tricky aspects, like with all these paintings, was fitting a landscape onto a square canvas. But that’s how I started out – on small 8 x 8 inch canvases.
Hoar frost, hard rime,
old browned icicles
Houses tilting sideways,
lurching into crusted mud
Wheedling cats poking hesitant paws
at frog-cold sidewalks
But always the river,
a broad pewter necklace,
twines and winds with sapphire currents
under marcasite ice floes,
between ermine-lined banks,
wrapping the bare, stooped shoulders
of the snowbound, shivering old town
in a dazzling Winter mantle
The book contains paintings of all the seasons, and the most dramatic one is autumn, when the salmon run takes place and it rains buckets and turns cold, and the local river becomes a torrent. It turns from a placid little stream to an angry roar filled with crazy, flapping dying fish. Weird. I did not use punctuation in the poem because I wanted it to “run on” and be “unfinished” like the river.
the grey-blue water runs deep
over the rocky bed, roiling stones
thrashing around tree-trunks
rushing on like it’s hell-bent
on ending its life in the ocean
and washing frantic, raw-jawed salmon
along as willing fellow suicides
Book design, paintings and poetry by M. Bijman
A Chez Mob Production© 2014